Direct from National Portrait Gallery in London, this exhibition of work by the pioneering American is part of the NGV's Festival of Photography
Legendary Memphis photographer William Eggleston has created a whole genre of psychologically ambiguous Americana, much of it centred on apparently mundane bits of his home town. I expected that isolating his portraits from the rest of his work wouldn’t work. How would they fare, without all those existential landscapes and unanswered questions to problematise them? In fact, this show really makes you realise all over again this man’s extraordinary genius and oddness.
Two photos in this show, both from the early 1970s, really nail the whole Eggleston thing. The first is a tiny photobooth black-and-white self-portrait. In it, Eggleston seems remote: a fine-boned, bespectacled, Mahleresque face, a foppish college scarf, one of those monied, long-all-over haircuts. The second is a photo of his friend, weirdo Memphis dentist TC Boring. Boring is in the house in which he would later be murdered and incinerated. He is standing naked in a moment of reflection. The bedroom is blood red, with ‘God’ and ‘Tally Ho!’ sprayed on the wall. The colour hums, as though the print itself were struggling to keep Boring alive: it’s terrible, hilarious, disturbing and uncontrived, all at the same time. How did that man take this photo?
It’s one thing to imply alienation and dread with a grim motel room or a deserted parking lot. It’s quite another to manage to do so – as Eggleston does here – in a picture of your nephew sitting at home in an armchair. A portrait of the dead blues musician Fred McDowell in his casket is way less troubling than a shot of Eggleston’s wife taking a nap on a bed in front of a buzzing untuned TV and a sinister open closet. Time and again, Eggleston shows us that a picture of a person is never a simple thing.
This is not a big show, for a man who is supposed to have taken more than a million photographs, but I could spend a week in it, happily. Or a year. You have to see Eggleston’s work edited in this way. And you have to see his photos in the flesh (including Mr Boring’s knob). If I could give it six stars, I would.
This review of William Eggleston Portraits originally ran in Time Out London.